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Laramie Movie Scope:
Muscle Shoals

The incredible story of the Muscle Shoals sound

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 11, 2013 -- The Muscle Shoals sound, and the musicians who created it, were immortalized in the lyrics of the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit, “Sweet Home Alabama,” when they sang “Muscle Shoals has the Swampers.” What is it that makes the music recorded in the studios in this small, out-of-the-way part of Alabama so magical? That's the question this documentary film tries to answer.

The film, directed by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier, goes back to long before the time the cotton growers and other settlers moved in to the area. The local Native Americans said the Tennessee River had music in it. The story is told of a woman relocated to the “Indian Nations” of Oklahoma, walked all the way back to Muscle Shoals because there were “no songs” in the waters in Oklahoma. There are lots of songs in the waters of the Tennessee.

Like the documentary about the Motown Sound, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” the filmmakers might be asking the wrong question. Maybe the Muscle Shoals sound isn't in the river, or the cotton fields, or in the farms or the food. Maybe it arises from a way of life virtually unchanged for generations. Maybe that sound comes from the musicians and the soul of the people who made the music.

To a remarkable extent, the Muscle Shoals sound comes from local area in and around Muscle Shoals, population 12,846 in 2007. The area known as “The Shoals” includes the Florence–Muscle Shoals metropolitan area, which includes the towns of Tuscumbia and Sheffield.

Percy Sledge was working in a local hospital when he walked into FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios in Muscle Shoals in 1966 and recorded his first studio song, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” one of the greatest soul ballads ever recorded. Recording that song was the founder of the studio, Rick Hall. The studio band, called the “Swampers,” like Hall, were all local musicians, most of them from the surrounding rural areas, all of them white.

The Swampers, Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass) wanted their own studio. They left FAME Studio to create the extremely successful Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969. Hall was devastated, but bounced right back. He hired more musicians and his FAME Studio continued its success, right along with the competing Swamper studio.

Hall was a co-founder of FAME Studio in the late 1950s. He is largely responsible for the Muscle Shoals sound. Hall talks frankly in the film about his dirt-poor childhood and his drive to be a success, overcoming tragedies and rejections and threats to put him out of business. A perfectionist, Hall is a tough taskmaster in the studio, sometimes insisting on numerous takes before he is satisfied with the sound.

After very successful Muscle Shoals sessions with Wilson Picket on songs like “Land of a Thousand Dances” “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway,” record producer Jerry Wexler brought his newly signed talent, Aretha Franklin, to FAME studio. Her first recording session produced “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” her first record with over one million in sales. The session turned her career around, but an argument that started in the studio and ended with a fight between Hall and Aretha Franklin's husband at a hotel so angered Wexler that he severed his relationship with Hall and threatened to put him out of business.

Hall, who thrives on rejection, went on to prove Wexler wrong and continued the success of his studio by recording hits for Bobbie Gentry, the Osmonds, Jerry Reed, the Gatlin Brothers and many others. The Swampers also had a lot of success at their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, recording hits for The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and many others.

There is quite a lot of talk about race in the film. The original Swampers were all white, as is Hall, but many of the early artists to record at Muscle Shoals were black, and the music sounds like black music. Muscle Shoals even managed to successfully record Reggae music as well as Country Western, funk, soul and rock. The Swampers seem to be able to play anything. Over the years many black musicians played in the studios, along with the whites, but even during the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s, Hall said that there were never any problems between the races in the studio.

The film includes references to the many famous people from the Muscle Shoals area, including Hellen Keller. We think of recording studios being in major cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville and Memphis, but Muscle Shoals? I don't believe in vortexes, like the ones claimed to be in Sedona, Arizona. But if there is such a thing as a musical vortex, it would be in Muscle Shoals.

There are a lot of cuts from a lot of songs recorded at Muscle Shoals in the movie. It opens with “Land of a Thousand Dances” and it ends with “Sweet Home Alabama.” In between are interviews with many famous singers and musicians like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Bono, Steve Winwood, Wilson Picket, Gregg Allman, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and many others who speak of their love for Muscle Shoals and wonderful music. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2013 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)